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by A.C. Thompson

Secret Prison In Afghanistan Called 'Son Of Guantanamo'

(PNS) GARDEZ, Afghanistan -- This dirt-road city of some 70,000, surrounded by a vast moonscape of sand and rock, can be a dicey place. Last month, suicide bombers blew up the provincial governor and then, for a second act, bombed his funeral. But Gardez, which lies south of the Afghan capital of Kabul, is a crucial stop if you're seeking clues about the inner workings of America's War on Terror.

In the town, and throughout Afghanistan, the U.S. military has created an extensive network of detention centers dedicated to holding hundreds of captured Afghans, mostly suspected Taliban backers. The United Nations is barred from these jails, as are human rights activists, journalists, and even the Afghan government. And in the absence of outside scrutiny, it seems, terrible things are happening to Afghan citizens -- men who've emerged from these jails say they've experienced the sort of horrors now synonymous with Abu Ghraib.

Dr. Rafiullah Bidar, director of the Gardez branch of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, is one of the few people who's been able to slice through the shroud of secrecy enveloping these detention centers. A small man with a bald head, prominent arched eyebrows and a beard going to gray, Bidar has debriefed scores of men captured by U.S. military forces.

"In 2005 [the U.S. military] admitted they have 20 jails all over Afghanistan and 500 detainees," said Bidar during an interview. "It was a good achievement for us to get them to admit this. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to go see these prisons. Finally, we decided to do interviews with detainees released from jails. They told us how they were tortured."

The commission has catalogued more than 100 cases of serious alleged abuses -- abuses Bidar described in methodical fashion. The victims include one man allegedly "blindfolded and forced to sit on a chair that penetrated his anus" by U.S. personnel.

Most of the men were villagers held as alleged Taliban or al-Qaeda sympathizers. Bidar said the majority aren't actually allied with either group.

The story of Allah Noor, a middle aged merchant with a small produce stand in the heart of town, is typical. Noor was grabbed by U.S. soldiers on a winter afternoon in late 2003. "When they entered my shop they asked an Afghan translator to tie my hands," Noor recalled in an interview. "They wanted to know 'where the guns were.'" The troops thought he was providing weapons to the local Taliban guerrillas although he had no arms.

The soldiers blindfolded and hooded Noor before driving him to a nearby base. When the blinders were removed he found himself in a locked room surrounded by two Afghan translators, three Americans in civilian garb and three Americans in military uniform. They stripped him naked and took photos from all sides. Some of the U.S. personnel began asking him questions through the translators while others "started to beat me very badly. Then they forced me to sit in a position that was impossible."

He stood up to demonstrate, bending over at the knees like a baseball catcher, then thrusting his torso forward in an obviously uncomfortable position. The beating went on for three hours. Then, Noor said, they "gave me only trousers and put me in a big dark room. It was the beginning of winter. The room was very cold and there were holes in the roof. The snow was falling on me. I had only one thin blanket. I was under the snow for days."

The next day, in a scene straight out of the Abu Ghraib playbook, the soldiers attacked him with a snarling German shepherd. For days he wasn't given any food, allowed to use to toilet or allowed to pray. Eventually, they hooded Noor again and hauled him to Bagram military base via chopper.

There he was thrown, hooded and shackled at the ankles, into another room. "I realized there were other people in there because they were moaning. Then they started to beat us with punches and kicks." Again, the jailors loosed a dog on Noor. When he was pulled out of this room, the soldiers made him run to an interrogation chamber while hooded, chained and cuffed. As Noor recounted his ordeal, tears pooled at the corners of his large green eyes.

The abuses went on for about five months, until, with little explanation, Noor was set free by the United States and walked out of the prison. He had no clue whether the men who'd worn street clothes while interrogating him were agents of the CIA or military intelligence.

Gannat Gul, a 38-year-old veterinarian, told a remarkably similar story. Unlike Noor, who had been given orders not to speak with or even look at other prisoners, Gul was eventually allowed to talk to his fellow inmates at Bagram. Among the prisoners, Gul said, were Iraqis, Iranians, Saudis, Yemenis, and Pakistanis -- all of whom said they had been abducted outside of the country, probably by the CIA.

As for Gul, a U.S. military document obtained by this reporter showed that he was incarcerated by the "Combined/Joint Task Force (CTJF)-76" at "Bagram Airfield" for about two and a half years before he was freed in January 2005. He was one of 81 people freed in a mass release of prisoners.

Gul, who wore a mud-stained navy blue tunic, was furious with the United States. As the soldiers were arresting him, he said, they stole several of his most valuable possessions -- a camera, a tape recorder, binoculars, and two wrist watches -- as well as his life savings of 350,000 Afghanis (about $7,100). "I was not Talib. I was not al Qaeda," Gul spat. "In all the world there is no bigger thief than America. America is the cruelest. I have lost everything."

Among the things he'd lost was his UN-funded job caring for goats and other farm animals.

Back in Kabul, sitting in a heavily fortified, bullet-pocked compound, Judge Abdul Baset Bakhtiari, a prominent Afghan jurist, confided that he did not have access to the U.S. military detention centers. "The Americans are dealing with it completely. The Afghan government has nothing to do with this." Though Bakhtiari was overseeing the handover of prisoners rounded up by the Americans, he was barred from inspecting the U.S. facilities.

In an office defended by armed guards and a bomb-scanner, Gabriela Iribarne, a human rights officer with the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, echoed Judge Bakhtiari. The United Nations, she said, "has kept watch on coalition activities, primarily detention" but has had to do its watching from afar -- like the judge, Iribarne and her colleagues have been denied entry to the military jails.

In her view, there has been some progress. "In the last year the American units here have become a lot more forthcoming," she said, adding, however, that the military jails still seem to be employing "practices the human rights community isn't happy with."

Apparently the only group to get inside the facilities is the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been visiting detainees at the U.S. jails in Kandahar and Bagram since 2002. The Red Cross, though, is tight-lipped, by policy. The organization's confidentiality rules barred Reto Stocker, the head of the Red Cross delegation in Afghanistan, from revealing what his people had observed in the jails. (It's also not clear if Stocker and the Red Cross have been given full access to all the cells and enclosures within the Bagram and Kandahar jails.)

At the Pentagon, spokesman Todd Vician, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, acknowledges that the Red Cross is the only outside organization watchdogging battlefield jails, saying the venerable charity is uniquely suited to deal with the chaos of combat. "Consistent with U.S. policy, [the Department of Defense] provides the International Committee of the Red Cross access to our theatre detention facilities and to detainees held in those facilities," Vician said. "No other organizations have been provided access to our facilities in Afghanistan."

But Vician plays down the charges made by the ex-prisoners. "The instruction to our forces, in accordance with U.S. law and DoD policies, is that all detainees shall be treated humanely," he stated, adding, "allegations of misconduct or abuse by U.S. Armed Forces are taken seriously," and "individuals who violate U.S. law or DoD policies will be held accountable for their actions." According to Vician, the Defense Department has no information about the allegations raised by Bidar and the men quoted in this story.

President Bush, in a Sept. 6 speech, admitted that the CIA is holding people in secret prison facilities. He described the jails in broad, bland terms: "Most of the enemy combatants we capture are held in Afghanistan or in Iraq, where they're questioned by our military personnel. Many are released after questioning, or turned over to local authorities -- if we determine that they do not pose a continuing threat and no longer have significant intelligence value. Others remain in American custody near the battlefield, to ensure that they don't return to the fight."

But the reality on the dusty streets of Afghanistan isn't nearly as tidy as the president suggests. It's not clear that men like Allah Noor and Gannat Gul have anything to do with the insurgency. And it's not clear that their maltreatment -- which apparently transgresses international law as well as human decency -- will do anything but aid the neo-Taliban combatants now seeking to blast the country apart, bomb by bomb.

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Albion Monitor   October 3, 2006   (

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